Black women ripping the runway — and your exotic fetish

This season, I had the opportunity to work on a couple of fashion shows for New York Fashion Week. (Shoutout to the guy I dated who never thought that I could be in the fashion industry.) Apart from the tedious tasks of making sure that the clothing was in pristine condition with no loose threads, all phrasing and terms appeared correctly on tags and scripts (where my main job came in as a fashion copywriter and proofreader, if you will), assortments and accessories had to be sifted through for each corresponding outfit, and order of the show was correct, I also got to sit in on casting and hear the ins and outs of how certain models make it in a show.

Naturally, models of color tend to be a bit more difficult.

Why? Because different lighting has to be accounted for with models of darker complexions. Many “non-people-of-color” do not understand how to work with lighting on deeper skin tones. So, when there are models of color, they tend to be grouped together so that they can all have similar lighting at once. Also, the models are placed in colors that will look “attractive enough” on darker skin.

More along the subject, high fashion clothing really isn’t made for the “ethnic” body. However, women of color tend to be added in fashion shows simply for diversity, in hopes that the designer doesn’t receive any negative feedback. (This tends to happen by trial and error for the designer.)

Finally, models of color add “flavor” to the fashion show. They are seen as exotic. It’s nearly as if the high fashion industry has a weird, fetish for women of color to not seem “normal,” but rather supernatural and not realistic.

Of course, this is not every case. I’m sure there are plenty of high fashion designers out there who love a rainbow of hues and a mountain of curves on the runway, designers who feel the need to create clothing lines for women with a variety of body types.

However, there is still that vast majority of designers who see models of color as exotic entities just to fill an artistic void rather than for their distinct beauty. The models’ cultural issues may not be of concern; their sustainability as serious fashion models may not be a priority.

With this in mind, it made me wonder how often this sort of scenario plays out in the everyday world. Naturally, people already have some sort of pre-conceived notions as to how black women are supposed to act and look, but when it comes to our personal lives, how often are we as black women turned into a weird fetish? How often are we seen as art projects rather than for our natural beauty?

And how does this affect our personal relationships? Especially when mainstream media-beauty-fashion is telling society how to physically view us — nearly like an exotic trophy piece to show all of the guests when they come over for the dinner party. 

As a woman of color, it never stops running through my mind how a variety of people view me. It comes with the territory of the double consciousness — and, even more so, the triple consciousness since I am a minority woman. Among my friends, whether they’re black or white or a variety of brown; whether I play the funny, sarcastic one in the group; or the quiet one who throws in occasional one-liners; or the token in a group of white friends who seems sassy because that seems to come with the territory for whatever reason, I still know that majority of the time I have some sort of identity within those relationships. 

On the other hand, with men it can change. Interracial relationships tend to always be up for debate on whether or not the person who may not be of color — or may not be black, for that matter — can handle the territory that comes along with dating someone who is black. Hell, this can even apply to men of color — our black men — especially those who may not have much experience dating black women. Our ancestral cultures, vernacular, self-identification, even our culture just here in the U.S. There are so many factors of being golden children of the multi-melanated rainbow, but a society that cannot even sympathize with those factors still wants to have a voice and say on how our skin should be worn.

Being a vocal woman, I always heard that dating white men could be right up my alley. That they would appreciate my attitude, think it was cute or attractive. Initially I thought that it could be a possibility. And as I dated some of these white men, I saw their fascination grow of me being a black woman: How I’m supposed to do certain “black” things and act in a certain “black” way. They seemed to like the extra spice added to their regular shake-and-bake. However, when the moment came for “normal” situations, when it wasn’t time to be “trendy,” they expected for the blackness to turn off. As if it was just a choice to be black and as if I chose that option to reap the benefits of “coolness” and for the ability to throw around a racial slur just because white people can’t get away with it. Well, at least not in a mixed-company setting.

Hearing the stories of how black models were cast, I knew the truth of it but maybe I just didn’t want to accept the full reality of it in 2017. A reality that we still have to be placed in colors which THEY deem appropriate, or be placed in a setting where it’s convenient for others rather than it being beneficial to us.

And sadly, though we as a people have grown accustomed to the bias and harsh criticism, sometimes we adopt it ourselves. We come to believe that we can’t wear certain shades because we’re too dark, or we allow people to be lazy when it’s our time to shine onstage and they don’t want to change the lighting or refuse to learn the proper pronunciation of our names. And we then become brainwashed, not realizing that our natural beauty is flawless in its origins. Maybe we stop dating men of color so that we can have a significant other to balance out the flash in our pictures. Maybe we hope that the more we assimilate, the more we can be accepted — either by rinsing out the color or playing Hottentot Venus in the middle of a crowd. At first, we don’t want to; it’s uncomfortable and we feel ashamed. But if we see our role models do it who paved the way, maybe that’s the only way that we can get by.

Black women are like cheetahs of the wild. Taking us out of our natural form may seem interesting and exotic at first, but we’re still a record-breaking, lethal breed. Our ideals and culture are embedded in the patterns of our coats, no matter how others think they should be worn.

* * *

Related Reading: The Dreadlocks Debate: How Hair Is Sparking the Conversation of the Moment

Related Reading: There Was Blackface on the Runway Once Again

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